Heart and Vascular Disease: Know Your Genetic Risk

Genetics and Ethnicity - Large

Heart and vascular disease is the number one killer in the U.S., but some people are at greater risk than others. You can’t pick your parents or your ancestry, but knowing about increased risks from your family or ethnic background empowers you to take action to protect your health.

How family history affects your risk

Your risk for heart and vascular disease is greater if close family members (parents, siblings, grandparents) have heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack or stroke. Take particular note if your father or brother is diagnosed before age 55, or your sister or mother is diagnosed before age 65.

Having a family history of cardiovascular disease doesn’t mean that you will have the disease. It does mean that you should be on the alert, however, and take greater care to make lifestyle choices to prevent disease.

Healthy choices such as eating right, exercising regularly and not smoking can go a long way toward counterbalancing a family predisposition to heart and vascular problems.

To record your family history, use the Web-based My Family Health PortraitOff Site Icon developed by the U.S. Surgeon General and other federal agencies.

The role of ethnic background

For Caucasians, African-Americans, and American Indians in the U.S., cardiovascular disease was the leading cause of death in 2013. For Hispanics, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, heart and vascular disease is the second most common cause of death, after cancer.


Nearly half of all black adults have some form of cardiovascular disease, compared with about one-third of all white adults.

Genetics and Ethnicity - In Content

African-Americans have the highest occurrence of high blood pressure in the world, often occurring at an earlier age than with other ethnic groups. Research suggests a gene for salt sensitivity that increases sodium retention, blood volume and blood pressure.

African-Americans also are more likely to have diabetes and stroke. They have a higher incidence of obesity, with 63 percent of non-Hispanic black men age 20 and older and 77 percent of black women either overweight or obese. All of these conditions are directly linked to cardiovascular disease.


Hispanics are at higher risk for high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes, all risk factors for heart disease. Eighty percent of Mexican-American men and 76 percent of women age 20 and older are overweight or obese.

Paradoxically, a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that despite these risk factors, Hispanics are 25 percent less likely than whites to die from heart disease. Medical experts do not have a clear explanation for this but still encourage risk factor reduction.


Prevalence of heart disease varies widely among Asian groups. South Asians tend to have higher rates of coronary artery disease. East Asians tend to have lower rates, but their children tend to have more risk factors — such as obesity — once they adopt Western culture.

Across all groups, factors such as income, and access to health care, healthy food and space for exercise all impact cardiovascular health. Whatever your family or ethnic heritage, remember that lifestyle habits play the biggest role in safeguarding your heart and vascular health.

Small Steps: Leg pain?
If leg pain keeps you from walking, call your doctor. Supervised exercise can control risk factors that cause PAD leg pain.